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Your Green Home
by Alex Wilson
There are many reasons to build a green home. Perhaps you want to provide a safe, healthy place for your children to grow up. Or maybe you're concerned about rising energy costs. Your priority might be comfort, or durability — knowing that the house will last a long time with minimal maintenance. For a growing number of us, building a green home is about doing our part to protect the environment, helping to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. A green home is all of this, and often much more.
This book is written to help you understand what green building is all about, and then show you what's involved in applying these ideas to your home — whether you are having that home custom-built, looking for a house built by a speculative builder, or building a home yourself.
What is Green Building?
The term green building is used to describe design and construction of buildings with some or all of the following characteristics:
Quite often, when people think of green building, what comes to mind is the use of recycled-content building materials — insulation made from recycled newspaper, floor tiles made out of ground-up light bulbs, and so forth. Materials are indeed an important component of green construction, but this way of building goes much further.
Green building addresses the relationship between a building and the land on which it sits; how the structure might help to foster a sense of community or reduce the need for automobile use by its occupants; how to minimize energy use in the building (energy consumption being one of the largest environmental impacts of any building); and how to create the healthiest possible living space.
A Short History of Green Building
Green building can trace its origin, in part, to builders of solar homes during the 1970s and '80s. Many of the architects, designers, and builders who were involved with solar energy back then had gotten involved because of concerns about energy shortages and the environment. Since solar energy is a clean, renewable energy source, designing and building homes to make use of solar was a way to reduce impacts on the environment, creating homes that required less fossil fuel or electricity.
These designers and builders began to realize, however, that their focus was too narrow, that reducing conventional energy use was just one part of a much bigger picture of resource efficiency and healthy building. Sure, those solar pioneers could build a house that used solar energy to keep its occupants toasty on cold winter nights, thus saving money and helping the environment at the same time. But what about where these houses were being built? What about their durability? What about the materials used in construction? Was the wood coming from clear-cut old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest? What about the alarming increases in asthma among children? What about ozone depletion? And what about comfort? Some of those houses with extensive southfacing glass overheated or experienced glare problems during the day.
Environmentally aware designers and builders began to broaden their focus. They recognized that North America's buildings accounted for a huge percentage of its energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, resource use, and health problems. And instead of simply being part of the problem, these pioneers wanted to be part of the solution. A few professional organizations, including the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute, formed new committees or divisions to address environmentally responsible building. New organizations were created, including the US Green Building Council. New publications were launched addressing green building, such as Environmental Building News. Even the mainstream industry magazines, such as Builder and Architectural Record, began running feature articles on green building. A shift began that will forever change the way we design and build.
Homebuyers and commercial building owners are also encouraging the green building movement. People want to live or work in buildings that are healthier and better for the environment.
Opinion polls regularly show that the public is willing to spend more for something that's better for the environment; it only makes sense that this concern extends to our homes and workplaces. In commercial buildings, research shows that people working in green buildings (with features like natural daylighting, healthy air, and operable windows) are more productive; they get more done in less time, whether manufacturing widgets or processing insurance forms. Because the labor costs of running a business dwarf the costs of operating a building,improving the productivity of workers can yield tremendous financial returns. Similar studies are showing that students learn faster in classrooms that have natural daylighting. A highly detailed 1999 study of hundreds of classrooms in the San Juan Capistrano School System in southern California, for example, correlated the rate of learning with the presence or absence of natural daylighting. The researchers found that learning progressed 20% faster in math skills and 26% faster in verbal skills in classrooms with the most natural daylighting compared to classrooms with the least daylighting.
While much of the green building movement is very new, there are also aspects that have been around for a long time. Many of the ideas being advanced by environmentally concerned designers and builders are drawn from the past. Landscape architects in the American Midwest are studying how Native Americans managed the tall-grass prairies using fire and are using those practices at some large corporate office parks. Ideas from pioneering individuals — such as Frederick Law Olmstead, 19th-century designer of New York City's Central Park, Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s, and landscape architect Ian McHarg beginning in the 1950s — are referenced widely in the green building field today. Some of the underlying principles of passive solar design date back to prehistoric cliff dwellings. Green building is still in its infancy. Not only does the building industry not yet have all the answers about how to build green, it often doesn't even know the right questions to ask. There have been tremendous strides made since the early 1990s in understanding the environmental impacts associated with building (for example, scientific studies of the life-cycle impacts of building materials), but we still have a very long way to go. Some of the ideas presented in this book will probably become obsolete as the green building movement matures over the coming years and decades. But we now know enough to provide clear guidance to someone who wants a home that will have a lower impact on the environment, and that is the purpose of this book.
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